WORLD CUP REVIEW: Magic Luka Modric, Paul Pogba perfection and a blundering Brazilian

Brazil's Neymar, Croatia's Luka Modric and France's Benjamin Pavard. (AFP)
Updated 17 July 2018
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WORLD CUP REVIEW: Magic Luka Modric, Paul Pogba perfection and a blundering Brazilian

  • Our goals, players, and team of the tournament

France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia on Sunday was the best World Cup final since 1982 and closed out what was a brilliant, drama-packed tournament. Here we look back at the past four and half weeks in Russia to give you our highlights of a memorable month.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT — Belgium 3-2 Japan

In a tournament packed with tense, closely fought matches this was easily the most dramatic. With 21 minutes to go Belgium’s “Golden Generation” were 2-0 down and staring at a shock second-round exit at the hands of Japan. But they proved that alongside the flair and finesse, they also had backbone as strikes from Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini levelled the score before 90 minutes. That then set up a memorable finale as the Red Devils brilliantly counterattacked in added time with Romulu Lukaku dummying for Nacer Chadli to fire home the late winner. Subs bench: France 4-3 Argentina, Spain 3-3 Portugal, Spain 2-2 Morocco.

PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT — Luka Modric

There was a moment in Croatia’s 2-1 extra-time win against England where the midfield maestro’s legs had clearly gone and he was running on pure adrenaline. Yet, even after 105 minutes Modric still went in search of the ball, still looked to create the all-important winner, he never gave up and never looked anything other than pure class. That summed up the entire tournament for the Real Madrid man, and although he ended up on the losing side in the final he was easily the most impressive player in Russia. Subs bench: Kylian Mbappe, Raphael Varane, Eden Hazard.

GOAL OF THE TOURNAMENT — Benjamin Pavard - vs. Argentina, second round 

There are certain ingredients you need to win goal of the tournament. A touch of brilliant technique, a dollop of great team play, a slice of “did you just see that” reaction, and for it to come at an important time in the match. Pavard’s volley from 30 yards had all four of those in abundance: 2-1 down to Argentina in the second-round clash, Les Bleus were in need of a bit of magic and while Mbappe rightly took many of the plaudits for his two goals, it was Pavard’s strike that galvanized the French and set them on their way to World Cup glory. Subs bench: Nacho (Spain vs. Portugal), Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal vs. Spain), Nacer Chaldli (Belgium vs. Japan), Toni Kroos (Germany vs. Sweden).

SHOCK OF THE TOURNAMENT — Germany’s early exit

If anyone tells you they thought the defending champions would not get out of the group, there is a very high chance that they are lying. They were ranked No.1 and, while they came into the tournament with a few issues (Leroy Sane dropped, Mezut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan’s photo op with Turkish president Recep Erdogan), no one thought they would depart as early as they did. They were outclassed by Mexico, needed a last-minute winner against Sweden and looked clueless during their 2-0 defeat to South Korea — it was as embarrassing as it was surprising.

LOSER OF THE TOURNAMENT — Neymar

Where do we start? We could go with the pathetic diving and play acting which would have shamed a four-year-old, the fact he rarely hit the heights that would befit the most expensive player in the history of the game, or we could go with his ridiculous haircut. But what most embarrassed him was his naked narcissism. The fact is that Philippe Coutinho was Brazil’s best player in Russia, but Neymar insisted on taking all the free kicks and being the center of attention. The sooner he realizes that football is a team game and that there are players as good, if not better, than him then the sooner Brazil may win the World Cup again. As long as they pander to Neymar’s inflated opinion of himself they have little chance.

TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT. (3-5-2)

Goalkeeper — Jordan Pickford (England): Was the star of England’s unexpected march to the semifinals.

Defense — Raphael Varane (France): The best player in the best defense of the whole tournament, sheer class. Harry Maguire (England): Made a name for himself in Russia, will be around for many years to come. Diego Godin (Uruguay): As dominant and solid a defender as you are likely to find.

Midfield — Thomas Meunier (Belgium): In a side packed full of attacking talent Meunier proved one of the most dangerous attackers from deep. Ivan Perisic (Croatia): Brilliant on the ball and always a threat, Perisic was one of the key men behind Croatia’s run to the final. Luka Modric (Croatia): The best player on the ball in Russia was also the best player in the tournament. Paul Pogba (France): How Manchester United fans will wish he could reproduce his mature and dominating performances in Russia for them. Eden Hazard (Belgium): The best dribbler in Russia was always a constant menace for opposition defenses.

Forwards — Kylian Mbappe (France): It is frightening to think just how good he can become. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium): All his goals came from open play and was one of the key reasons behind Belgium’s good tournament.

Subs bench: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium), Yerry Mina (Colombia), Kieran Trippier (England), N’Golo Kante (France), Denis Cheryshev (Russia), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay).


Historymaker: Saudi teen secures Kingdom’s first ever Olympic gold medal

Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Assiri wins historic first gold for the country.
Updated 18 October 2018
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Historymaker: Saudi teen secures Kingdom’s first ever Olympic gold medal

  • The victory marked Saudi’s third time on the podium at the two-week Youth Olympics
  • I have been working towards this moment for 10 years, said the gold medalist

BUENOS AIRES: It is said that the karate-ka who has given the necessary years of commitment and meditation to the sport is both fearless and tranquil. They can, it is said, be calm even in a burning building.

Last night, inside a furnace-like Europe Pavilion at the Youth Olympic Park, and in front of Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Assiri won the Kingdom its first ever Olympic gold medal. And welcomed it, initially at least, with utmost calm. 

Defeating Masaki Yamaoka of Japan 8-0 in the Men’s Kumite -61kg final, the 17-year-old Saudi immediately thanked his opponent and bowed to the various officials, before turning to his coach, removing his red gloves slowly, and greeting him with a starch salute. Only afterwards, once these rituals of respect were over and his opponent had slipped away, did Al-Assiri explode with joy, his face contorting into beautiful agony as he screamed in guttural Arabic and jumped around the mat.

“I am so happy, so proud,” he said, his prize glinting in the spotlight of the world’s media. “This is the first gold medal for Saudi Arabia and our first medal ever in karate. I have been working towards this moment for 10 years, especially in the past two when my training intensified. I came for gold and this is the result of years of serious work. It was very difficult, but I am just so proud. Thank you to Allah.”

The victory marked Saudi’s third time on the podium at the two-week Youth Olympics, after bronze medals in weightlifting and 400m Hurdles. It is a stellar return for a country that brought only nine athletes to Argentina and has won just one medal at this level before, a bronze in equestrian four years ago. Yousef Jalaiden, the chef de mission for the Saudi delegation, had confidently predicted medals earlier this week, but even he admits expectations have been exceeded.

“We are very happy right now,” Jalaiden said, watching as Al-Assiri, wrapped in the Saudi flag, posed for photos with Prince Fahd bin Juluwe bin Abdulaziz bin Musaed, the head of the delegation. “It’s our best achievement ever at an Olympics — be it Youth or the full Olympics. We are so happy — we hoped for three medals, like I said before, and we got them,”

Karate is making its Olympic debut this week ahead of Tokyo 2020 and Assiri had secured his place after winning at the first qualifying event in Croatia this summer. In front of vocal support from Saudis and Egyptians, he was handed the historic victory after his offensive front-footed display culminated with Yamaoka fouling four times during their bout.

“During training, people from other countries were all telling us Mohammed would take gold, but for us it was never a certainty,” Jalaiden added. “We expected him to reach the final, but when you get to a final, anything can happen. He has been training exceptionally hard though and it has all paid off.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Egypt’s Yasmin Nasr El-Gewily won the Women’s Kumite 53kg final, defeating Japan’s Rinka Tahata 2-1. “Egypt are our neighbours and we have an excellent relationship with them, so today it is like our nation is one,” said Jalaiden. “We have both enjoyed great success here.”